Perception or Reality?

Who would seek to bail on New York before his contract was complete? Someone who doesn’t need the validation. Someone who realizes what Alex Rodriguez would never comprehend: New York is a mistake.

Of volatile moods and cranky outings, credit Johnson for enough grounded self-awareness to understand how New York’s two-year tolerance period works for those who arrive amid the pop of flashbulbs: one year for acclimation, one year for reclamation.

This is the margin of patience. It takes a special player or coach with a strong back for scrutiny to transition from a wide-eyed country mouse to a position in a rat race of expectations without losing his marbles.

Yesterday, Selena Roberts wrote about the cauldron that is New York Sports (Times Select). As a resident of the city and as someone who has spent 35 of my 38 years in either Boston or the Big Apple, I have some perspective on being a fan in two of the more notoriously rabid and difficult environments for professional athletes.  I remember growing up listening to the "Sportshuddle" on Sunday nights, with Eddie, Mark, and Jim, and now spend selective moments listening to Mike and the Mad Dog or Michael Kay, though surely I do so with fingers pressed softly in my ears, just enough to mute the crazy opinions that come forth from both the hosts and callers on occasion.  Roberts’ article got me thinking about the reality of New York (and Boston, which I know from my youth), and the reality of the "mistake" versus the perception of the "mistake".  I believe that Roberts is wrong.  New York is not a difficult place to play or work.  It’s only difficult for certain types of people.  And those types of people have difficulty everywhere, particularly if they aspire to perform at the top of their profession. 

There are only a handful of athletes who have failed in high-profile circumstances in New York (I’ll get to Boston in a moment).  Ed Whitson comes to mind.  Steve Sax [EDIT – Chuck Knoblauch] and Mackey Sasser lost their abilities to throw manning second base and catcher.  There are more, but I am not a scholar of New York history like others, and I’ll refrain from going further.  But I do believe that the number of implosions is far smaller than the myth that Selena Roberts would have us believe.  Roberts picks out Randy Johnson for his current willingness to engage the idea of returning to Arizona.  But is Johnson a good example of New York shredding the psyche of an impressionable young tyro?  Or is New York simply circumstantial in this case?  Johnson came to New York a 41-year-old aging veteran with a championship ring, chronic back problems, and no knee cartilage.  His performance, while somewhat disappointing to Yankees fans, is hardly inexplicable.  Attributing it to the pressures of playing in the Bronx is giving far too much credit to the city, in this poster’s opinion, to the fans of the team and the press for being merciless and irrational.  As this site demonstrates, many Yankees fans are hardly that.   The press, well, that’s a different story.  But the press, like the fans, is varied.  And professional athletes are usually pretty good at ignoring the press or treating it with disdain, which would, to me, temper their impact.

As for Boston, I don’t remember growing up in a heated cauldron of public opinion.  Granted, Boston has always been a big sports town, with two newspapers and plenty of verbose scribes.  But when I was little (or, littler!), the Sox were pretty good, the Celtics had come off an historic run of greatness and fallen into a terrible slump (thanks, John Y. Brown!), only to re-emerge with Larry Bird.  The Patriots were perennially disappointing (and hosed by the refs, let us not forget), and the Bruins were only a few years from the Bobby Orr era, so people were pretty forgiving.  The sports press has always had it’s Ryan and Massarotti-types, but back then I remember Shaughnessy as a beat writer and Gammons wrote the Sunday Globe columns.  Conceivably I have blocked out the nastiness of the press or it was just not as bad as it is now.  Either way, my perception of Boston as a sports town (or, more specifically, as a Sox town) was not as it is portrayed today, of fans foaming at the mouth for the next (or first in a long-while) title, harsh to players (like Edgar Renteria in recent times), who just can’t hack it in the hot climes of the Fens.  We had nothing but disdain for Jack Clark, but who in their right mind in San Francisco, or Milwaukee, or Detroit wouldn’t have had disdain for Jack Clark based on what he signed for, said, and then did?  That’s just being a fan, not being a Bostonian.  The same goes for New York and New York fans.

Selena Roberts’ column, in my opinion, perpetuates the myth of New York (and, by my own extension, Boston)  and the myth of the harsh sports town.  Certainly New Yorkers expect a great deal.  Certainly Bostonians expect a great deal.  Certainly the press is an ever-present entity in both towns that can’t be dismissed.  But I do not believe that Randy Johnson has been crushed by the city, emotionally hobbled by the "mistake" of arriving in my adopted metropolis.  There are rare athletes who are destroyed by environments like this.  I challenge Selena Roberts and others here to name more than Eric Lindros or Ron Dayne (Lindros came with chronic knee problems, Dayne with questionable talent), to substantiate what I believe to be a fallacy, that New York ruins hugely talented athletes on ascent or at their peaks.  New York (or Boston) ruining mediocrities or ex-superstars is nothing special.  Even for special cities.

14 comments… add one
  • Bravo, SF. That Roberts piece, like so many Roberts pieces, was complete bull, an example of many of the worst sportswriting traits, and indeed “columnist” traits, especially at the Times, where they adore a “trend piece” and create them not by actually finding trends, but by annointing the ruminative observations of their writers.
    New York is a great place for an athlete. And New Yorkers are as forgiving a bunch as can be. Can we be harsh? Yeah. But the ones who take crap here are those who don’t play hard, or have a bad attitude about the city (Randy!), or are stupid, not those who have a bad run. (Though that, as anywhere, will get you booed: it’s that kind of town. Put up or shut up.) Steve Sax was not ruined by NY. He had fielding problems in LA. He was a popular player here, and an good one, just like Chuck Knoblauch (have you confused the two?) who earned enough good will for what he did to make the team great, that he was viewed largely with sympathy by the fans. Certainly the city isn’t to blame for his throwing probs.

    YF December 28, 2006, 9:26 am
  • Well, there *is* a pretty sizable list of Yankee pitchers who have thrived elsewhere but who couldn’t handle the Bronx.
    Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano and Jeff Weaver come to mind.
    Knobloch’s bizarre throwing problem is another (head) case.
    I don’t so much count the Unit (despite his hilariously bad start with the New York media, attacking a cameraman on his first visit) because his performance is more attributable to age than to any mental factors.

    Hudson December 28, 2006, 9:31 am
  • No, I knew Knoblauch had troubles here. I thought Sax’ started here, but as I said I should steer clear of deeper Yankees history. I simply had a hard time thinking of players that New York ruined (or, comparably, players that Boston “ruined”). This idea that New York (or Boston) is a mistake for the faint of heart is, to me, nothing but myth. I simply cannot come up with a number of players who were derailed by a collective urban condition. And those who were perceived as demoralized or taken down had other circumstances contributing to their slide. This Roberts conveniently ignores.

    SF December 28, 2006, 9:34 am
  • Kevin Brown also had major health issues, was at the tail end of a storied career. Pavano is a total enigma and I think it is strange to attribute his issues to New York, and Jeff Weaver hasn’t really excelled anywhere for any consistent duration since he left the city. Is New York to blame for his inability to fulfill his potential?
    The thing is there are tons of hotshots who go to new cities and fail. But you never hear about the “mistake” that is Seattle, right? Richie Sexson might like that article.

    SF December 28, 2006, 9:36 am
  • Kevin Brown was old & busted. NYC had nothin’ to do with it.
    Pavano had one good year before the Yanks signed him and he failed. Meh.
    Weaver (specifically, the year he had that convinced the Yanks to trade for him) was as much a product of Comerica as anything else.
    Vasquez was an NL pitcher who has continued to struggle elsewhere.
    Contreras is an odd one, but although he certainly had a flash of brilliance (including the playoff run) in Chicago, he’s also had stretches where he pitched just like he did in NYC.
    Knoblauch, maybe. The throwing yips were clearly psychological and clearly began in NYC.
    ARod remains to be seen… if he really retires early (he’s been talking about quitting after his contract expires), one could wonder if playing in NYC was the prime driver. But again, that remains to be seen.
    Sure, there is pressure. I’m sure it does make things tougher on some guys. Then again, having ~50,000 fans at every game boosts other guys.

    Rob (Middletown, CT) December 28, 2006, 9:44 am
  • Pavano hasn’t heard the wrath of the NY fans–he hasn’t played here that much!
    Weaver was hated because of his SHITTY ATTITUDE and utter immaturity. JOE TORRE clearly didn’t care for him. Don’t blame NY.
    Vazquez was not hated by the fans, nor was Contreras.

    YF December 28, 2006, 9:52 am
  • And Edgar Renteria wasn’t hated by the fans, though not loved either. So the idea that the crowd drove him to fail, or the harsh atmosphere took him apart, that’s fiction.

    SF December 28, 2006, 9:56 am
  • Excellent post, SF. I read that article on the plane yesterday and wished I was near a computer. Luckily you articulated (and much better) what I was thinking.

    Nick-YF December 28, 2006, 11:04 am
  • Renteria’s performance in Boston was nearly identical to his performance the year before in St. Louis. The idea that he couldn’t hack it in Boston — or that Tony LaRussa somehow has the innate ability to tell these things — is also a myth.
    Also, as has been intimated here, most of the payers recently who were successful before coming to NY, then “couldn’t hack it” there, were old players due for a fall who likely could no longer hide behind weaker competition when they moved to the supertalented AL East. As the Jeffs (Weaver and Suppan) have proven, in the right division, anyone can look like an ace.
    In the AL East, you actually have to be an ace, at whatever position you play, and King George’s policy of signing future HOFers based on past laurels likely hasn’t helped the perception propogated in that column.

    Paul SF December 28, 2006, 12:18 pm
  • Talk Radio is not the Press. Talk Radio is Show Business. The real press is relatively tame in both cities, and very aware that it has to cover teams day after day. Talk Radio is looking for ratings, and encourages irresponsible commentary. Any athlete who is affected by Talk Radio deserves whatever he or she gets. And few athletes read the newspapers.
    That said, Roberts’ column was ridiculous. Johnson is over the hill. And still won a lot of games in 2 years, whatever his era was. Almost no one has been run out of town in either city. And Johnson does not want to leave because he is unwelcome. He would probably prefer to get the Yankee run production. All he is trying to do is encourage a trade, for which he would be willing to accept a one year extension at many millions.

    Waldomeboy December 28, 2006, 12:25 pm
  • A couple of things to throw into the mix:
    Knoblauch was recently separated and moved into NYC, away from the LI community where most of the Yankees had had homes. His mental issues could be attributed to that or maybe it could have been attributed to his father’s alzheimer’s disease getting progressively worse (two things about hsi life that he refused to ever discuss in the media).
    Contreras rebounded sorta. He split his season between NY and Chicago and wasn’t very good in Chicago that year. Then his wife and child were reunited with him in America and he proceeded to have a very good season; and then last year he started great and stunk it up in the second half…so who knows?
    Just wanted to throw those out there, specifically about Knoblauch. Partly because I was guilty of being down on Knoblauch (more for when he was popping up seemingly every first pitch in his final season than his throwing problems which were just tragic).

    walein December 29, 2006, 1:00 pm
  • knoblauch shouldn’t even be on this list at all – he actually had a very nice mini yankee career for a decent while, as well as some HUGE post season moments (the 7 run 7th inning in the 98 W.S. stands out most) – however strange the knoblauch story ended – it was NOT a product of NY – unfortunately, it was just his time.
    … roger clemens looked more “in the twilight of his career” in his first yankee season than his last boston season even though he was just coming off a cy young award
    and pavano isn’t a NY choker (yet) .. he’s just a plain THIEF posing as a ballplayer
    Here’s a few good ones to chew on ..
    how about TONY FERNANDEZ (yankees & mets)
    this guy was INCREDIBLE on both sides of the diamond for ANY TEAM NOT wearing an NY on their hat!
    … Kenny Rogers (the moron!)… actually helped the yankees more by digging them a hole in 96, than by picking them up.. and as a met, he single handedly broke met hearts everywhere in the 99 NLCS by walking in that winning (losing) run.
    .. which brings me to…
    i used to call shea stadium, “The Place Where Careers Go To Die”… and many have
    .. see bobby bonilla
    .. Mo Vaughn (although, he was kind of finished before he got there)
    … how about roberto alomar? (NY may actually be the reason he DOESN’T make the hall of fame)
    … tom glavine’s first two years were awful, and looked easily overmatched by NY
    NY is definately a different animal. The sports education of the fans makes it really hard to hide even the smallest of mistakes that might otherwise go unnoticed elsewhere, while the press can be absolutely unbearable at times, revving the engine on a runaway train.

    Jv December 29, 2006, 11:44 pm
  • Jv, I just don’t think that’s right at all.
    — Rogers has always been streaky and overrated. His first season in New York, his ERA+ was 108. His career ERA+? 110. He tanked in 1997, his second year, but that was still better than he did in 2001, with Texas, and similar to his 2003, with Minnesota. Could Rogers just not handle the Minnemedia?
    — Vaughn had a slow and steady decline following his last season in Boston, and he thrived in a Beantown atmosphere that it can reasonably be said has not always welcomed black players, so to say he couldn’t handle New York is just illogical.
    — Roberto Alomar might not make the Hall because he spit on Steve Palermo, not because of 263 at bats in 2003 — and I doubt the voters will weigh those at bats any more than they’ll weigh the 253 at bats he compiled in Chicago (where he performed slightly worse, by the way) that same year.
    — Tony Fernandez did indeed play wretchedly in New York, far worse than in any other city. Of course, it’s a grand total of 557 at bats, and Fernandez really only had good seasons while playing for Toronto.
    — Bobby Bonilla set a career high in home runs with the Mets, and although he fell off significantly in his first season in New York, he rebounded nicely the next 2.5 years. In fact, argubaly the best season of his career was in 1995 — the first half of which was played in New York (during which time he hit .325 and slugged .599).
    I agree that it might take a year’s transition for players used to more laid back atmospheres (A-Rod from Texas to NY is something close to night and day), but I have to agree that the idea that the city ruins stars on a regular basis is just ridiculous.

    Paul SF December 30, 2006, 1:44 am
  • Google is my friend. Too bad I didn’t use it before I posted. John Hirschbeck was the focus of Alomar’s spitting rage in 1996, not Palermo.

    Paul SF December 30, 2006, 1:46 am

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